Researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion found that the overwhelming majority of teenagers say they believe in God, but they’re flat clueless about basic gospel distinctions. For example, most believe God is like a “divine butler”—someone who should be available at our beck-and-call to give us what we want, when we want it. And when we don’t need him anymore, we’d like him to go away.
Now, as uncomfortable as this might be for us, we actually feed this debased view of God by the way we teach kids to pray in our ministries. To most kids, prayer is simply the “cover charge” you have to pay to get into God’s candy bar. They’ve been taught that “the harder they pray, the higher God jumps.” And they’re not alone—researchers say most adult Christians have exactly the same view of God.
A couple of years ago Time Magazine asked Meagan Gillan, spokesperson for the Presidential Prayer Team, what the group would do if John Kerry were elected. She replied, “If that’s the case, we’ll just have to pray even harder.” Her comment fairly represents what many teenagers (and adults) believe about prayer—it’s a discipline we must muster and master to get God to do what we want him to do.
But gospel prayer is nothing like an arduous task—that’s akin to reminding my wife that I deserve a back rub because I made the sacrifice to talk to her for a while. Um…that won’t fly at home—mine or God’s.
We model the shadow gospel when we pray only at certain times, with certain words, in certain places, in a certain tone of voice. As a result, kids learn that prayer is primarily rote, coercive, and administrative.
So model new ways to pray that are primarily relational.
• Fill your retreats and Bible studies with surprise “prayer pit stops” that focus more on listening than talking.
• Or stop in the middle of your talk or activity and have kids take a moment to tell God what’s going on in their hearts.
• Or plan prayer activities that teach kids to offer something to God, not just take something from him.
• Teach kids to ask what God wants for someone before they simply start praying. So often we “pray without knowledge” because we don’t stop to ask what’s on God’s heart for someone—we assume we already know.
• Our prayer times are almost always focused on our own needs—teach your kids that intercession on behalf of others is a good gift.
• Or every now and then purposely transition from talking to your kids right into talking to God—don’t preface your prayer by saying, “Let’s pray” or “I’m going to pray now.” Just talk to him (if you need to, ask kids to excuse you while you take a minute to talk to God). The idea is to translate your normal conversational skills, habits, and practices into modeling prayer more naturally.
Transformation in this one area—how you model and teach prayer to your teenagers—will start to work against the “divine butler” mentality that’s so entrenched in your kids.
Rick Lawrence has been editor of GROUP Magazine for 18 years.